Jail the Planners for Not Preventing Sandy!

Ed Blakely indicts the planning profession for failing to protect our communities from the threat of a changing climate. How can we plan places that serve as bulwarks from the worst physical traumas, while providing economic and social resiliency?

Only a week ago, scientists and professionals all over the world were appalled by the conviction and sentencing of Italian Seismologists for failure to predict an earthquake in L'Aquilla, Italy. This seems absurd. Earthquakes are not really predictable. But, the potential damages of Sandy were well known long before the storm struck the East Coast of the United States on October 29, 2012. Planners and city officials approved developments on the New York, New Jersey and Carolina coast in areas of known high risk. Why shouldn't they go to jail?

I advance this argument to get the attention of our planning profession, which has been complacent and diffident when we know better. We blame our political masters. But an engineer who knowingly gives bad advice losses his/her license. We have to wake up. Sandy should be our line in the sand. We cannot say we are agnostic about climate change and the forces of nature. We know all about these issues and we have a duty to communicate this information clearly and forcefully to our communities. Climate change may be unsettled in degree and direction or even cause. But the information on increasingly severe weather is settled science. Even skeptics agree on this. So, why should planners endorse developments in dangerous areas?  Even a 1 in 100 (year-actually possibility) is too great a risk, particularly when a structure will not survive even a modest flooding or increase in real temperatures.


Damage to New Jersey coast, By U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So, why should planners allow and even promote such outrageous activity? Surely this form of building and land use violates the planning codes of ethics. Of course, we all know the reason. Planning lacks professional standing like engineering, law or medicine. Maybe Sandy will give planners the backbone to say "enough is enough" and prompt the planning profession to actually look and act like a profession. As professionals we have a duty to take positive actions in our communities and plan for the known hazards each of them will face. We should plan our neighborhoods not merely as bulwarks against the worst physical traumas, but as better places to live and work for all people of all races, in order to generate more economically and socially viable communities.

Where to Begin

Planners throughout the profession need to take a direct role in re-imagining and re-crafting communities for a severe weather era. This means every community in the nation will have to be re-imagined for a new era of resilience and adaptation. The current land use regimes may have to be re-thought, and in some cases totally abandoned. Communities fear loss of property values if their area is considered at risk. But the market has already, or will soon, reach that determination through insurance spikes and price declines. Better plan to improve a community to make it more resilient rather than wait for it to decline and die. Second ring suburbs are declining across the nation, illustrating this phenomenon already. Those places near water with no sea walls or appropriate mitigations will be among the first to be abandoned. Unfortunately, many seniors have elected these as their retirement homes.

Second, planners need to lead community weather and habitat risk analysis for every city. In many places, waterside, hillside and even low lying developments on wetlands or unstable ground could give way in severe rains, crack in prolonged droughts, or succumb to potential water or land movements unimagined at the time of construction. Too many suburban developments are already untenable for a severe weather future. In addition, climate change is altering wildlife and insect habitats leading to the spread of disease and other dangers to communities.


Darkened New York, By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Third, auto dependency is a new hazard. Sandy reflects the dangers of communities so totally dependent on the automobile, that in an emergency, residents have no capacity to obtain routine living items like food without a car. Any form of urban community that cannot be reached by some form of mass transit or provisioned with food and water will be too risky to live in within the decade. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that gas stations are closing all over the nation because they are environmentally hard to permit and are no longer profitable.

Finally, every community must be re-planned for energy, water and food self-sufficiency in time of crisis, like Japan. There is no reason that schools, fire stations and other buildings in every community cannot be re-designed so that they capture and store, as well as recycle, bio mass, sun and even wind energy. These systems should feed to the grid in good times and give back to the community in disasters. Similarly, we should, like Japan, build sports fields, median strips, and other areas with fresh clean water cisterns under them. Within every 400 to 600, or 800 by 800, square meter block there should be locally grown foods combined with food shelters for storage of canned and other long lasting goods for emergencies. Food should be grown in parkways and other areas, along with tree planting for berries and fruits as part of community development and environmental protection.

The Future

Our future necessitates increased community reliance. By building communities that are heterogeneous in age, lifestyle, and race to fit the realities of the present, we can cultivate the tolerance and cohesion necessary to confront our looming challenges. Maybe a little bad weather will do what good intentions and politics have not been able to achieve; give all Americans a sense that "we are all created equal and must work together to pursue happiness". This would be a well-planned future for America and one built on hope, not fear.



Edward J Blakely is honorary professor of urban policy at the University of Sydney. He was Executive Director of Recovery in New Orleans (2007-2009). His book
My Storm: Managing Recovery in New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina, (Univ of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) recounts his experiences in New Orleans and other disaster recoveries.

Comments

Comments

Not quite so

While this article is good-hearted in its intent, it contains some errors. First, planners don't have the kind of power the writer describes. Second, this is wrong: "every community must be re-planned for energy, water and food self-sufficiency in time of crisis, like Japan." As was seen in the Fukushima tragedy, Japan, although a very wealthy country, was not prepared. Third, the auto-dependency problem is primarily one of African-Americans, since they own cars at the lowest rate of any group in the US. Planners need to be much more conscious of such social equity issues. Tom Sanchez and I discuss such issues in our new book from Island Press, "Planning as if People Matter: Governing for Social Equity."

Auto Dependency

I agree that planners don't have this much power, and I think Prof. Blakely was exaggerating to make a point.

I do not understand your statement:
"the auto-dependency problem is primarily one of African-Americans, since they own cars at the lowest rate of any group in the US."
It seems to have nothing to do with what Prof. Blakely said about auto-dependency:
"auto dependency is a new hazard. Sandy reflects the dangers of communities so totally dependent on the automobile, that in an emergency, residents have no capacity to obtain routine living items like food without a car."
In an emergency, when it is impossible to drive, living in an auto-dependent community is a problem for everyone.

Charles Siegel

Dependency

I see wide spread agreement on the power issue, as in national land use policies in coastal areas that lack tooth... no bite in regulations like the Clean Water Act (waved for fracking as an example) and local caveat emptor developer attitudes that are now screaming for state and federal help.

Do not define auto-dependent as "needing a car" - define it as having no other choice. I know you meant it that way. Having a choice made NYC efficient and resilient and "fixable", even where advanced age broke it down a bit. Areas Blake describes are most likely to recover via land use cognitive dissonance (if you want to call it that) just in time for Sandy's sequel - estimated for a box office near you in 3 to 20 years. That makes it an accountability question subject to a tort review. In civil law seeking damages for wrongful acts is difficult when a line in the sand is not drawn and the injured party is everyone. A remedy should be simple perhaps banning the use of electric power (even as cars) or in any generated form would work.

Loved the book...

Rex

Jail the Decision Makers, Not the Planners

Planners are not to blame here -- it's the decision makers, namely our elected officials, who routinely ignore the recommendations planners make so often that the planning profession is largely demoralized. Seriously, planners can only give advice. The gutsier planners will advocate for adoption of their advice -- and many of us have lost jobs for doing just that. The bulk of the profession does its best, but is too scared to make the bold recommendations needed to protect New York, for example, from future climate-caused disasters, just as the most planners are too scared to combat the extreme levels of racial and economic segregation that continue to drag this nation down.

We need our professional organization to really support the professional planners who stick out their necks for the sort of policies Professor Blakely advocates. We need a professional organization that identifies and shames exclusionary communities, cities and counties that have dismissed planners for doing their jobs. But that isn't going to happen as long as APA/AICP continues to refuse to really support courageous planners.

Daniel Lauber, AICP
Planner/Attorney
AICP President 2003-2005, 1992-1994
APA President 1985-1986
http://www.planningcommunications.com

Jail the Bean-counters not the Planners

The Bean-counters, accountants, shareholders, board of directors, and those who control the money are the ones we should jail. The planners present options that the bean-counters can take or reject.

Blakeley

Trust a guy who has no degree in a planning-related discipline or ever worked as a practicing planner in the real world to criticize planners as a profession. Plus the mess he left in NOLA after Katrina speaks volumes about the depth of his expertise. His comments make me wonder if he knows ANYTHING about planners and how development actually gets done. The simple truth is that planners have little real power to effect substantive land use change that involves real estate with extraordinarily high value unless the land owners, developers, and City Council members are aligned with the proposed change. Local politics is what Blakely should be talking about but apparently he has no clue. Planners control land use only in his mind or in the imaginations of people who believe that Agenda 21 is a socialist plot to destroy private property rights.

Interestingly, we

Interestingly, we (politicians and planners) remained silent for many years while allowing development to happen in coastal areas and low lands, now suddenly we realized that we need to jail politicians or planners for wrong doing, after the sandy incident. Why did we not demand for jailing for so many years? We are used to reacting for the immediate problems--and forgeting soon as time passes. This is not right. We all are responsible for developing low areas (landowners, propertyowners, politicians and planners) for many years. But the real issue here is how can we correct and how can we avoid such mistakes in future. How to adress the politics of development of vulnerable sites---flood plains, coastal areas, near nuclear plants, steep areas, forest fire areas? Let su focus on this.

Interestingly, we

Interestingly, we (politicians and planners) remained silent for many years while allowing development to happen in coastal areas and low lands, now suddenly we realized that we need to jail politicians or planners for wrong doing, after the sandy incident. Flood plain development did not happen overnight. Why did we not demand for jailing for so many years? We are used to reacting for the immediate problems--and forgeting soon as time passes. This is not right. We all are responsible for developing low areas (landowners, propertyowners, politicians and planners) for many years.

But the real issue here is how can we correct and how can we avoid such mistakes in future. How to adress the politics of development of vulnerable sites---flood plains, coastal areas, near nuclear plants, steep areas, forest fire areas? It is wise to focus on this.

Interesting idea, but in most

Interesting idea, but in most of the US there is a thing called private property rights and people are not receptive to the nanny state dictating what can and cannot not be done on ones private property.

Jail the Professors

Jail the professors for not teaching what needs to be taught.

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